Pit road, frenetic and heavily trafficked, claimed a member of Bill Elliott’s racing team Sunday.
Mike Rich, 32, a construction worker from Blairsville, Ga., died of a heart attack while undergoing surgery after being hit by a race car driven by Ricky Rudd at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Rich was changing the right rear tire on Elliott’s Ford Thunderbird as the Atlanta Journal 500 field was completing the race’s 300th lap when Rudd came into his pit position fast, locked his brakes and slammed into the rear of Elliott’s car.
Rich, who was pinned under Rudd’s car, was airlifted to Georgia Baptist Medical Center, for treatment of head and chest injuries. He died at 8 p.m., track spokeswoman Marti Rompf said.
“He had an unsurvivable injury,” said Dr. Patrick Luke, trauma surgeon at Georgia Baptist told the Associated Press.
Also hurt was jack specialist Tommy Cole, who sustained an arm injury, but was listed in good condition Sunday night in Henry County Hospital.
Elliott’s brother, Dan, who was changing the right front tire when the accident happened, had what was reported as a minor elbow injury and was treated in the infield care center.
Rudd was at a loss to explain what happened. “I don’t know if I got in some oil or what, but the brakes locked,” he said. “And the way this pit road slants toward the pit instead of toward the track, it takes you to the inside of pit road anytime you lock the brakes or spin.”
Elliott was leading the race at the time. An Atlanta Constitution report quoted ESPN commentator Jerry Punch in saying that Rich was alive and asking about the condition of Elliott’s car and his chances of winning the race just before leaving the track in the helicopter.
It was the second time in three years that a pit road tragedy had struck the Elliott team, and the second time that death has visited pit road at Atlanta Speedway.
The Atlanta pit road was the scene when an 18-year-old jackman, Dennis Wade, of Charlotte, N.C., was killed in the late 1970s. Similarly, Wade died when a car driven by Dave Watson came in fast and its brakes locked up, throwing the machine into a skid.